Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
In May, as a part of my continuing education, my wife Janna and I visited the city of Rome. My summer sermon series in the Footsteps of Saints Peter and Paul is based on that visit. This morning we turn to the Appian Way and St. Peter’s chance meeting with Jesus.
No doubt, chickens crossing the road to get to the other side has been a topic of humor since the first Roman road was built. But in the ancient Forum, comedians would ask, so Why did the Roman chicken cross the road? Because she was afraid someone would Caesar! That’s what you call “poultry in motion.”
The first major Roman road, the famed Appian Way, was constructed in 312 B.C. It was built to serve as a supply route between the Republic of Rome on the western coast of Italy across the peninsula to its allies on the southeastern coast in Capua. From then on, road systems often sprang from Roman conquest. The ancient builders used whatever materials were at hand to construct their roads, but their design always employed multiple layers for durability.
Construction began by digging shallow, three-foot trenches and erecting small retaining walls along either side of the proposed route. The bottom section of the road was usually made of leveled earth and mortar or sand topped with small stones. This was followed by foundation layers of crushed rocks or gravel cemented with lime mortar. Finally, the surface layer was constructed using neatly arranged blocks made from gravel, pebbles, iron ore or hardened volcanic lava. Roads were built with a crown and adjacent ditches to ensure easy water drainage. Due their ingenious design and careful construction, Roman roads remained technologically unequaled until as recently as the 19th century. But while modern asphalt highways might offer a smoother ride than Rome’s historic road, the 2,000-year-old roadways take the prize for durability. All roads that began in the city of Rome, including the Appian Way, received a label with a master list of destinations along its particular route. This labeling eventually led to the popular phrase “All roads lead to Rome.”
The Appian Way is known for many historical events. In the 1960 Summer Olympics an Ethiopian, barefoot Abebe Bikila won the first Gold Medal for Africa running in the Marathon. A portion of the Appian Way was used for the course. It was the battleground for the 1943 World War II Battle of Anzio which lasted for 4 months. Once again, the road was being used to supply to armed forces. Perhaps the most well-known event on the Appian Way, involved the gladiator Spartacus and a slave revolt.. Spartacus was a shepherd who had been captured by the Romans and was sent to be a gladiator. In 73 B.C. Spartacus and eighty other slaves escaped from the gladiator school. They in turn, encouraged more slaves to run away from their masters and join them in the revolt. This uprising was very important and crucial because about a third of Italy’s population were slaves. Spartacus fought for more than two years and defeated several Roman armies. While he was trying to escape Italy at the port of Brundisium, the ending of the Appian Way; he moved his forces to Apulia. This was a costly and tactical mistake because this allowed Rome to pin his forces between two of their armies. After the defeat of Spartacus, the slaves were deemed no longer deserving of life, and so in 71 B.C. Spartacus along with 6,000 other slaves were crucified along the Appian Way. A similar chance historical meeting took place between St. Peter and Jesus on that same fabled road.
Just a few miles outside of Rome, on the ancient Appian Way stands the small church of St. Mary in Palmis, better known as the Church of Domine Quo Vadis. It takes its name from the legend found in the apocryphal book the Acts of St. Peter. It was the place where Jesus and Peter met again, 30 years after Christ’s ascension. There was now, however, a dark cloud hanging over the early church movement and Jesus’s disciples were unsure of what the future would bring. In 64 AD, portions of Rome had burned to the ground and the eternal city was lying in ruins. Many citizens were angry and searching for enemies to blame.
Despite the well-known stories, there is no evidence that the Roman emperor, Nero, either started the fire nor played the fiddle while it burned. He was actually an accomplished lyre player, actor and composer which embarrassed the aristocrats of the city but endeared him to the lower classes and soldiers. Nero actively used the disaster to his political advantage. Nero did not like the aesthetics of Rome and used the devastation of the fire in order to change much of it and institute new building codes throughout the city. Nero also used the fire to clamp down on the growing influence of Christians in Rome. Nero arrested, tortured and executed hundreds of Christians on the pretext that they had something to do with the fire. The Roman historian Tacitus described how the emperor had the Christians covered in wild beast skins and torn to death by dogs for shear spectacle.
According to the legend in the Acts of St. Peter, the apostle was fleeing persecution in Rome. As he walked down the road, he encountered Jesus walking on the same road, but towards Rome. Surprised by this encounter, Peter asked Jesus, “Quo Vadis Domine?” Lord, Where are you going- or perhaps, more literally, Lord, where are you marching? Wearily, Jesus looked at the 60 year-old, white haired apostle Peter and told him, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.” The meeting led Peter to turn around and go back to Rome where he himself was crucified. Peter was executed around the 67 AD in the Circus of Nero. Unwilling to be crucified like Jesus, he asked to be crucified with his head down. He was then buried outside the walls of Rome on the Vatican Hill.
For some of us, the legend of Quo Vadis, Domine? is just that. It is a story with no real, historical or scriptural integrity. But my friends, my experiences have taught me that it is a story that still challenges men and women of faith every day. They are being tested and tempted with the call, “Lord, where are you going?”
I am not sure when I first began to realize that faithful Christians could face persecution for their beliefs. I thought it was something that just happened long ago, but when I was sent as a missionary pastor to Latvia, I quickly heard the stories of those who had experienced persecution firsthand in this present generation. There were always choices to make and always different directions where to go? In weekly Bible study I met those for whom reading the Bible was completely new. In their homes, holy Scripture was considered too dangerous for discussion or study. I spoke with acquaintances in the choir in which I sang, who told me they once wore crosses, but they were taken away by their grandmothers who feared their future would be too compromised. In some cases, fellow pastors were forced to choose between going to Sunday School or attending University. Another friend was arrested for sharing a word of scripture from the Bible with a teenager. I knew pastors who kept a suitcase packed under their beds waiting for a midnight call at the door by the secret police. “Where are you going, Lord” was a question they had to answer daily. Even though I had been raised in the church. I couldn’t fathom the courage and strength these men and women needed to live faithfully day after day.
What a contrast it is to our own spiritual life today. A few years ago, long before Covid, a bishop was lamenting the decline of American Christianity in his State of the Church address. He said, paraphrasing, “membership is down, worship is sparsely attended, tithing is less than 1% and if our denomination is going to remain, some churches need to close and some properties need to be sold.” But, he continued, “I just returned from Communist Vietnam, where against all odds, Christianity is growing as fast as any other place in the world. And to join the underground Church, I learned that you have to take part in a weekly covenant group, study scripture and pray daily, give at least 10%, show up for worship and participate in missions.” One of the ministers in the audience raised her hand and asked the bishop, “Why do you think the Church is growing there and dying here?” The bishop responded, “Because in Vietnam, being a Christian will cost you, but here religion became entirely irrelevant the exact moment it stopped requiring anything of us.” Quo vadis domine? Lord, where are you going?
The apostle Peter wasn’t all that different from you and me. He made an awful lot of mistakes. He made poor decisions and didn’t know the right thing to do. In Rome, for whatever reason, he wanted to save his own skin. Which many of us choose to do. But despite all of that, when the apostle was challenged by Jesus on the Appian Way to choose between running away and following the way of the cross, he knew what he had to do. In that hour of decision, Jesus’ love and willingness to sacrifice his life again and to be crucified upon the cross, pierced the apostle’s heart. Peter was suddenly encouraged and willing to offer his own life as a testimony to others.
My friends, following Jesus has ist price. Christ will cost you your associations, because you can only hold membership in one kingdom. It will cost you your decision to go it alone, all because you are created to thrive in a community. It will cost you your privilege and sense of entitlement, all because you will have to ask God for that which you cannot give yourself. It will cost you your treasure, all because God’s blessings are to be shared. And it will cost you your life. “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it.”
Peter thought that crossing the road to get the other side and fleeing was the right thing to do—and confidently he went in that direction. But, when he was confronted with the loving and forgiving Jesus, he turned back to Rome with equal confidence, even though he knew it meant certain suffering and death. Why, you may ask? I suspect that because Jesus dared to ask him, the one question he needed to hear, “Quo vadis, Petri?” Where are you going Peter? It is the same question that you and I need to ask as well. “Quo vadis?” Where are you going my friend?” Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.